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Couple with a cause

Medicine@Yale, 2008 - Mar Apr


$10 million gift will drive research, trials of new skin cancer treatments

Roz Milstein and Jerry Meyer met in October 1971 in the Cross Campus Library at Yale. He was a fourth-year medical student. She was starting a doctorate in clinical psychology. Both were interested in community issues, and in making society a better place.

“We talked for five hours and found we shared a tremendous amount,” Jerome H. Meyer, M.D., recalls. “But we never thought back then that New Haven would be our home.”

Nonetheless, New Haven has remained at the core of their lives ever since that autumn evening. After marrying the following May, he began a residency in psychiatry and went on to practice in the city as a psychoanalyst. She finished her training and became a practicing psychologist, working with individuals and couples. They raised three children, who are now in their 20s and early 30s, and got involved in local education and arts organizations, helping to establish two of the city’s major educational and cultural programs.

Now the Meyers are turning their attention to health care and medical research. With a gift of $10 million to the School of Medicine, they are helping to expand the school’s research and treatment programs in melanoma, an often fatal skin cancer that has affected family members on both sides.

“Melanoma is one of the fastest growing and most deadly forms of cancer, and there are few options for people with advanced melanoma,” says Roslyn Milstein Meyer, Ph.D. “We’d like to see new treatments—effective treatments—developed, as well as new understanding of how cancer works.”

To that end, their gift will establish the Milstein Meyer Center for Melanoma Research and Treatment, with the goal of developing new treatments for melanoma. One relatively new approach that has proved promising is immunotherapy, which aims to use the immune system to treat disease, for example by training a patient’s T-cells to attack tumor cells.

Roz Meyer, a trustee of Yale-New Haven Hospital, is also a patient advocate for Yale’s NIH-funded Specialized Program of Research Excellence (or SPORE) in Skin Cancer. She’s become excited by the work of Mario Sznol, M.D., associate professor of medicine, Ruth Halaban, Ph.D., senior research scientist in dermatology, and their colleagues in a half-dozen departments, who are pursuing new ways of diagnosing, classifying and treating melanoma. Yale holds one of four SPORE Skin Cancer grants nationally.

According to Dean Robert J. Alpern, M.D., Ensign Professor of Medicine, Yale is ideally suited to attack melanoma. Yale has the top immunobiology research program in the country and is also well known for its strength in dermatology. (Department founder Aaron Lerner, M.D., Ph.D., discovered the hormone melatonin, and his work laid the foundation for skin cancer treatments as well as the modern science of dermatology.) The medical school has built a major program in medical oncology in the last three years, recruiting close to a dozen new faculty members with expertise in all the major cancers.

“Those three groups can bring it all together,” says Alpern, adding that support for cancer research and care is a top priority in the medical school’s development plan. “What we have in place is excellent, but we need to grow it.”

Sznol says the gift will enable the Yale program to expand and grow. The SPORE grant provides generous funding for basic laboratory and translational research, as well as limited funding for human studies. The next step—and the essential phase in the process to discover new treatments—is the development of more investigator-initiated clinical trials, which the Milstein Meyer Center will enable by providing funds for research nursing, data management, administrative and regulatory assistance, and other support.

“Clinical research is expensive, and it takes time,” says Sznol, former head of the Biologics Evaluation Section of the NIH Investigational Drugs Branch. “This gift from the Meyers will move us forward in a very significant way. It will improve our ability to design new treatments based on the very strong fundamental science that is already in place here, and ultimately test them in humans. You can’t develop cures in humans without doing clinical research, and treating humans is a lot different than treating mice.”

Roz Meyer says both she and her husband “are the kind of people who roll up our sleeves and jump in.” In 1991 they co-founded New Haven’s Leadership, Education and Athletics in Partnership (LEAP), an academic and social enrichment program designed to help children in New Haven’s high-poverty neighborhoods. The program soon grew to serve thousands of young people in five cities across Connecticut.

Five years later, Meyer and LEAP co-founder Anne Tyler Calabresi, joined by Jean Handley, launched the city’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas, which brings performers and artists from around the world to New Haven annually during two weeks in June.

Like those efforts, the Meyers consider their support for cancer research “a way to make something happen that otherwise would not have been possible.”

“We’d like it to cause people to take responsibility, if they have the capacity, to support the things they care about,” says Roz Meyer. It also brings the couple back full circle to their commitment to New Haven, says Jerry Meyer, who sees medical research at the core of the city’s identity in the post-war, post-industrial era.

“New Haven’s economy used to be armaments, with the Winchester, U.S. Repeating Arms and Marlin firearms factories located here,” says Meyer, who closed his clinical practice in the late 1990s and now works as an artist. “Now our industry is arts and ideas, and Roz and I feel very lucky to be a part of it."

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